Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ventromedially Damaged

I just read Blink, a book about what we subonsciously know before we consciously know something. In it, the author talks a little about studies done on patients with damage to the brain in an area called the ventromedial prefontal cortex, an area of the brain that is critical to making decisions. One of the neurologists who performed these experiments describes trying to set up an appointment with a patient:

"I suggested two alternative dates, both in the coming month and just a few days apart from each other. The patient pulled out his appointment book and began consulting the calendar. The behavior that ensued was remarkable. For the better part of a half an hour, the patient enumerated reasons for and against each of the two dates: previous engagements, proximity to other engagements, possible meteorological conditions, virtually anything that one could think about concerning a simple date. He was walking us through a tiresome cost-benefit analysis, an endless outlining and fruitless comparison of options and possible consequences. It took enormous discipline to listen to all of this without pounding on the table and telling him to stop."

The gist of the book is that sometimes we are able to make decisions, often times the right decisions, without necessarily knowing consciously why they are the right decisions. In a later section, the author describes an experiment where a group of psychologists were asked to consider the case of a particular patient. Each psychologist would be given some information, followed by a multiple choice test about the patient. After the first round, the psychologists would be given more detailed information, and asked to answer the same 25 question multiple choice test. More rounds of the same were repeated. With each new set of information provided, the psychologists reported greater and greater confidence in their answers to the test, changing 9-10 answers with each successive round. But in the end their overall accuracy did not improve. The designer of the experiment commented that as they received more information, "their certainty about their own decisions became entirely out of proportion to the actual correctness of those decisions."

The Bush presidency has been called, and not in a necessarily critical way, the "blink" presidency, based upon the notions that have come from this book. I think there is something to that characterization, for better or for worse. The key insight of the book, it seems to me, is that decisions made in a blink are not always for the worse compared to a more deliberative process, as is typically assumed in the Presidential role. It seemed to me that in the most recent election, for example, Kerry might have been the better able of the two to describe the pros and cons of a given decision, but the less able to actually make a decision. I think the same was true for Clinton. Whereas the errors of these two were (and would most likely be) the result of ommission - simply failing to do anything while you endlessly consider all options, the errors of Bush are likely to be those of commission (though I personally don't think he's made many of these). Democrats suffer from an image of weakness on foreign policy for this very reason - if there is a part of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that deals with foreign policy, their's is clearly damaged.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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10:33 AM  
Anonymous Jim O said...

Kinda-sorta related to the topic via reference to decision-maiking techniques, but also kinda out-there:

How is it that in the past when a country was attacked, it was able to respond without having to listen to the opinion of Myanmar and Trinidad/Tobago on the proposed actions? Did the Cold War make all war so very frightening that no one is now capable of a warlike response without the spectre of nuclear annihilation leaping immediately to everyone's minds? Why is war such a horrible response today, but not in 1917, or 1898, or even 1941? Is nuclear response THAT easy, that we are not permitted to wage war on who we decide we will wage war on, because everyone with a high-school level chemistry education can make a suitcase nuke?

And if that's not the case, why doesn't any administration ever petition Congress for a Declaration of War? The Executive branch has the Commander-In-Cheif of the Armed Forces - what is different about Executive Actions that would be impossible if a Declaration of War was issued? I think it would be easier, not more difficult. But it is never done anymore. Why not?

Is this why foreign relations are so difficult? Republicans can't understand why any other nation gets any input in our international activities, and Democrats can't understand how we would be willing to risk retaliation by not developing an international mandate? And meanwhile nothing is ever done officially as a nation, it's always "Mr. Bush's War" or "Mr. CLinton's Missle Attack", or even "Mr. Reagan's Invasion".

Why don't we declare war anymore?

11:28 AM  
Blogger Clupbert said...

I will have to look in to reading that book. I also think that this a reason why democracy works and common folks (the dumber half) are just as entitled to their vote as the smarter folks. I think over-analyzation makes the same or worse decisions all the time.

2:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hatcher, you got a spammer on your list, must be a republican though, I got better insight on how to color my hair than why Bush doesn't have brain damage, we all know its because he's a born again and they are all brainwashed, not to forget the amount of drugs and alcohol probably did some harm.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is one error of commission in the Bush presidency, that little 1800 fatality known as Iraq. Didn't have to be that way regardless of what the international community thought. Doctoring intelligence and rewarding the CIA director afterwards aside, this little mess that Georgie Boy got us into over there is now a real long term committment. So much for Dick's dream of being welcomed with roses. Anyway, it probably would've been better to take care of Afghanistan and securing that wasteland from top to bottom would have been much more effective. It also, most likely, would've prevented them from returning to being the worlds number one heroin producer. Aside from that, actually listening the folks who have fought a war - remember those folks who said it was going to take a shitload more troops than Donny and the gang were willing to committ - and actually equipping the men and women involved probably would've been more effective. Or we can just believe the 'liberal' press when they tell us that the Iraqis are actually going to have a constitution on time. Maybe Georgie can help by actually spending the money on rebuilding the wasteland he created, oh wait, every study done so far documents how one out of every three rebuilding dollar is needed for security. The viscous circle of not enough troops to secure the country continues.....

8:42 PM  
Blogger pbryon said...

One of the other major themes of "Blink" is that when these snap decisions are made, that those making them can't really put their finger on why they made them. It just gut instinct, without much to back it up.

Doesn't that fit our President too?

(By the way, I found "Tipping Point" much better than "Blink.")

4:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The supposition in “Blink” as I read your Blog, is that decisions made without basis can be as often correct as those made with careful thought and a justifiable basis. I did not read the book but did they actually test the decisions made without consideration of facts versus those made with consideration of facts? Does this analysis only apply to decisions that can only be evaluated after the fact on a subjective basis?

There is also the issue of Plato’s, “The Meno” where Socrates conjectures that everyone is born with all of the knowledge of the universe with themselves but they can not remember it. Plato asserts that thought and consideration of facts and issues are the means of remembering the information already locked in the human mind. So maybe the there are certain people that need not toil over issues, they just see the right answer in their mind and act.

A decent analogy might be chess, it can be played in “speed” fashion and it can be played at a very high level in this manner but to get to the highest level, you have to be able to slow things down and carefully consider your moves and your opponent’s reactions to your moves. As for me, I want leaders that are deliberatively and decisive and consider the end game as much as the opening.

7:05 AM  
Blogger Incredible Dirigible said...

I have to comment on the Anonymous post beginning with the phrase "there is one error of commission in the Bush presidency".

This is just another Bush-hater who probably also thinks that Bush didn't do enough to prevent 9/11. This person probably echoes Hillary's sentiments: "What did he know, when did he know it, etc".

I've said it before: if Bush had intelligence that said Iraq was a threat, & chose to do nothing, as Clinton did, & then we got attacked by Iraq as we got attacked by Al Queda on 9/11, you'd slam Bush for that, too, & you know it.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

Haven't read "Blink," but doesn't its main premise only apply to decisions made with subjective judgement rather than facts?

One would never suggest that medical research be conducted on the basis of "I just feel this drug should cure cancer."

Similarly, the Bush Administration's gut feeling that Sadaam was a threat due to WMDs turned out to be flat out wrong and they would have been better served to continue to collect objective information about the weapons.

Maybe in subjective decision making where there is no strict ordering of what is best, for example who should replace Greenspan, this Blink principle works, but I would suggest it is completely ineffective in many other applications.

6:31 AM  

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